How Important are Performance Reviews?

by Andrew Gurman

Associates often wonder what to make of their annual or semi-annual performance reviews. Firms may seem to minimize their importance by providing them weeks or months after they were originally supposed to take place, or even neglecting them altogether.

But performance reviews do matter and can provide a bevy of information for attorneys who listen carefully to the explicit and implicit messages contained within them.

Here are three varieties of performance reviews and some commentary on each:

Glowing Review: “You’re the top associate in your class year, and you are firmly on a partnership track. Keep it up!” Associates who are fortunate enough to receive uniformly positive reviews and some stellar comments are clearly in excellent standing. They can leverage these helpful comments, for example, in the business development context, by seeking to go on pitches with partners, or in the recruiting context, by telling a potential employer during an interview how well regarded they are. But associates receiving wonderful reviews should note that conditions can change, sometimes dramatically, from one year to the next. Further, learning during a review that one is expected to make partner by no means guarantees that it will actually happen. The importance of such a review depends in part on the attorney’s level of seniority. It is one thing if an eighth year associate is told s/he is on a partnership track, but such a comment means much less for a junior associate. Elevation to the partnership ranks depends on many stars aligning properly, such as the right economic conditions, sufficient book of business, substantial need within an attorney’s practice area, continued excellent performance, etc.

Warning Signs: “Your research and analytical skills are solid, but your writing needs to be improved.” Associates should especially watch out in a performance review for (1) a serious concern raised by a partner, or (2) a weakness pointed out by multiple reviewers in one performance review or by the same reviewer in multiple reviews. These warning signs often indicate that the firm does not see the associate as having a long-term or at times even a short-term future with the firm. Firms document associates’ problem areas in reviews so that they have written records should they decide to terminate their employment. When a firm is experiencing a difficult economic situation and has to lay off associates, a previously stellar associate can suddenly get negative reviews. This situation is particularly troubling to associates whose informal reviews/comments did not suggest any issues. Any associate receiving a negative review should monitor her/his billable hours. If low based on the amount typically billed by associates in the same class year, then s/he should be more concerned than if s/he is billing significant time.

Clear & Present Danger: “You should start thinking about other opportunities.” An associate who hears these words from the firm’s partners should certainly follow this advice, and quickly, because a move typically takes several months and it is easier to move when employed. An associate who is put on a performance improvement plan or on probation should similarly think about other options. Often, firms will ultimately ask such associates to leave. As with associates receiving less alarming warning signs, an associate on probation should look to her/his hours in assessing job security.